The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins’ Woman in White is another link in my book chain that’s followed The Thirteenth Tale. Along with Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, Woman in White is mentioned several times. Like T13T, WiW is a fun, engaging thriller, with many odd and humorous characters. A young art teacher helps a woman one night, and finds himself tangled up in her destiny, which has a wide reach. There’s thwarted love, mistaken identity, dire secrets, and one of the best, most entertaining villains I’ve encountered in a long while, and he doesn’t even appear until 200+ pages in. Count Fosco, as he would undoubtedly tell you himself, is an astonishing character. Villainous, hilarious, and so fascinating to imagine that I wouldn’t want him to be dramatized in a movie–a real actor could not do justice to the many descriptions and characteristics of this vain, vile, large and tall man.

The tale is told in sequential narratives by different characters. This is done very well–events are not repeated, but expanded on from the point of view of another character when they overlap. The narratives are all well distinguished in the voice of their character. The mystery and its resolution unfold up to the very end, and I was happily engaged with this book for its 600+ pages.

At some passages, I raised my eyebrows:

The rod of iron with which he rules [his wife] never appears in company–it is a private rod, and is always kept upstairs.

Indeed. Ahem.

Other passages, especially ones by villains or lesser characters, made me laugh out loud:

Creaking shoes invariably upset me for the day. I was resigned to see the Young Person, but I was NOT resigned to let the Young Person’s shoes upset me. There is a limit to my endurance.

By the end, in fact, I was rather bored with the two main characters; they were comparatively dull, and largely overshadowed by the larger, more complex and entertaining cast. I think, though, this was intentional. In all, it was a “thumping good read.” I tried and failed to confirm the origin of this phrase (is it the book award?), but it means a book that is enjoyable for its story more than for its literary art, much as I felt about The Thirteenth Tale.

5 Responses to “The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins”

  1. gretchen Says:

    I’d love a list of books that are thumping good reads. Most of the time when I’m looking for a good book, that’s what I really mean. (I have discovered that when a book describes itself as “dreamy,” or “elegiac,” or mentions the prose at all, it’s usually not a thumping good read.) And in the meantime, have you ever heard the recording of the Woman in White musical? I’d love to hear your comparisons of book to music.

  2. Lazy Cow Says:

    My inner 12 year old boy loves a good double entendre. Somehow missed that one you mentioned though. A thumping good read indeed.

  3. Becca Says:

    Hm, thumping good reads: a few ideas.

    The Alienist by Caleb Carr

    Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini
    (There are others by the same author that are supposed to be good — e.g. Captain Blood — but I haven’t read them)

    Can a book be nearly 1000 pages long, and still be a thumping good read? Then I’d say Gone with the Wind would qualify:

  4. girldetective Says:

    Gretchen, I LOVE your insight about the inverse relationship between praise of prose and fun reads! I just read Wide Sargasso Sea, and it was NOT a thumping good read, and all I can do is praise the writing and provocative ideas because I did think it was good. I think there’s a difference good and enjoyable, sometimes.

    Lazy Cow: iron rod=mental domination, perhaps physical betting and, ahem, male member.

    Becca, I just had the prompt to read GwthW because of the Eleanor Roosevelt book I’m reading, and I avoided the Alienist because of a violence aversion that I may be over now.

  5. Framed Says:

    I read this for a challenge last October and thoroughly enjoyed it. I agree that the heroine was a wet rag but Count Fosco was delicious, especially because he was the only one smart enough to recognize the sterling qualities of the half sister (can’t remember her name). Thanks for your review.